Thursday, January 28, 2010

What Use is Biodiversity?

This blog post by BBC News writer Richard Black returns to our attention the perennial dilemma amongst environmental activists (and anyone trying to change the world for the better by asking others to make an effort): why bother? As this is now the International Year of Biodiversity, the question is why bother saving all those species out there? What use is biodiversity? (What has it done for me lately?) Here are a few things it does for you, all summed up neatly as "ecological services." (You want service, you got it.) * The nitrogen cycle; * The carbon cycle; * The water cycle; * Some additional aspects of the weather (e.g., microorganisms seed clouds, which end up making rain); * Filtering of waste water by bivalves (e.g., clams), plants, and other millions of organisms in streams, marshes, and estuaries; * Decomposition of dead plants and animals (by the very big all the way down to the microscopic); * Pollination by bees, bats, and butterflies of most of the crops billions of people depend on for their daily diet. Consider that the rest of the life on this planet - with the exception of millions of penned-up domesticates, race horses, and most pets - would do quite fine with no more humans, we would last only a few weeks if all the insects died off at once. If all the bacteria died, we wouldn't live even that long. So many people live in their little bubbles of processed air, food, and water that they forget how everything they need to live ultimately comes from a living being. What use is biodiversity? More than you are or I am. Maybe more than the whole lot of us.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Haiti and Hope

After posting last week on the way hospitals symbolize the best of humanity, I realized that the recent earthquake in Haiti has brought out the good in many people as well. Natural disasters of extreme proportions pull us together, though when numbers of suffering individuals tend to boggle the mind, our empathy can also shut down. In any case, the existence of organized charities, and relief agencies like the Red Cross Red Crescent shows the widening circle of concern, an almost artificial one, considering that we evolved to think of our children, families, and tribes first. Forming even temporary bonds with strangers in other countries is a sign of civilized behavior for sure. Last night, I indulged a guilty pleasure and watched the Golden Globe awards show. Meryl Streep won another award, and once again seemed embarrassed by it. (The phrase "an embarrassment of riches" may have been coined for her!) She did not mention Haiti, as a few other (I'm sure) well-meaning actors did. But she suggested that she felt guilty for all her good fortune while things like earthquakes and so on happen in the world all the time. But then she added that she found inspiration in her mother, a perennially cheerful woman, who urged her to enjoy herself and be grateful that she had a profession which enabled her, essentially, to write a huge check! Whining about her guilt and refusing to accept accolades from her peers and others would not put a morsel of food in a child's mouth. Perspective (and practical use of her wealth) could make a difference. Well said - and quite convincingly sincere. Pity it probably got lost in all the drinking and smirking!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hospitals and Hope

I once read a book called The Accidental Tourist (later made into a movie with William Hurt and Geena Davis), where the Davis character muses about hospitals. If an alien came down and watched an ambulance drive up to an ER and get surrounded by health-care workers, the alien would think us remarkably compassionate beings. What a strange institution a hospital is, when you think about it: a building dedicated to altruistic behavior. Several floors of highly organized departments, run by people with various levels of medical or administrative training, the whole beehive-like structure designed to receive injured or ill humans and either heal/cure them, help them deal with their problems, or usher them to a relatively painless, peaceful death. I was at a hospital on Tuesday, helping a relative with day surgery. The staff was efficient and gentle, for the most part, and everything seemed to go well. I handled language differences (between patient and workers), read over instructions for post-op care, and offered support. My relative was understandably stressed and vigilant, but appreciated every smile and reassurance through the ordeal. You don't have to be anxious like my relative to find hospital admission an intimidating experience. Issues about the reason for being admitted aside, the fact that your sense of personal dignity and autonomy is greatly compromised - perhaps even taken away completely - shakes the Self to the core. Whether it is wart removal or open-heart surgery, the basic set-up of handing your body and feelings over to strangers is the same. For people unused to trusting others, or ceding control, it must be particularly hard to deal with. The first healers were likely women, caring for their own children, then their siblings and mother (fathers and husbands might be away often or dead), then the children of friends, and on and on, until the circle of concern widened beyond genetic bonds to the pseudo-genetics of close associates. (That is, people who are not likely related, but feel related due to shared values, etc.) Eventually, in small groups, gifted herbalists and healers tended to all, and passed down their skills to daughters and granddaughters. Medicine changed when men took it on; the way skills were acquired and shared was institutionalized. Women were excluded for many centuries. Today, we take for granted the presence of hospitals in most settlements, and their cohorts of strangers caring for other strangers. Hospitals are symbols of hope: places where connections form, howvere temporarily, and selfless behavior exhibited, without an obvious or immediate evolutionary explanation.

Monday, January 11, 2010

2010: UN Year of International Biodiversity

This week, we begin the UN Year of International Biodiversity. The true wealth of our planet - life, in its varied, mysterious, awesome, and miraculous forms - is under a much bigger threat than ever in the geological record. There have been five great extinctions in the Earth's past, including the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T for short) one 65 m years ago, which wiped out most of the dinosaurs (most, if you believe that some became birds). Scientists now believe that we could be heading for the sixth great extinction. The rate at which species are vanishing is far greater than in any precious time. (See this article in the Guardian today for an overview of the current crisis, and why this Year is important.) It is particularly sad to see the reaction of so-called educated people (who supposedly should know better) when confronted with the knowledge that species are disappearing right before our eyes, in some cases, or quite invisibly - long before anyone could give them a name and status. The utilitarians say, "What do I care if some beetle goes extinct, unless it's a cure for something?" The fatalists say, "There have been extinctions before, and life came back, eventually." (Yes, but you'd have to wait a few million years!) While others say that extinction is a normal part of speciation, the process by which genetic changes in one species lead to the creation of a new, distinct life form. The species comes into being and, sooner or later, it goes away. (That is why we no longer see cave bears or pterodactyls.) Jared Diamond, physiologist turned paleontologist and anthropologist, and author of such must-reads as Guns, Germs and Steel, and Collapse, says in an earlier book, The Third Chimpanzee:
Dismissing the exinction crisis on the grounds that exinction is natural would be like dismissing genocide on the grounds that death is the natural fate of all humans.
It is a crisis. And while some of the losses may indeed be "natural" (I will not hazard a proper definition of that here), most are the direct consequence of the actions of most adaptable and single-minded species on the planet, Homo sapiens. Our need to simplify the environment before we can inhabit it has led to deforestation, drained swamps, irrigated deserts, cleared mountains, introduced species of plants (e.g., crops or gardens) and animals (livestock, pets), and urbanization. If our numbers had remained small - the total human population didn't reach one billion until around the year 1800! - these "adjustments" would hardly show. But we have grown to an unsustainable size, and spread into almost every nook and cranny, changing as we go. The rest of the millions of species with which we share this finite space, and on which we depend, have to accommodate us. Adapt or perish. When are enough people going to wake up and see the connections?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Hidden Toll of Terrorism

We have all heard the news about the Christmas Day bomber. A whole plane loaded with people experienced a "near miss" (actually, it was a near disaster) thanks to the quick wits of a few passengers, who thwarted the man's plans as he started to carry them out. Now we have to endure further indignities in the name of security - a shapeless concept if there ever was one - including what my friend Fred calls "bawdy scanners." How apt.
But see-through screening devices and longer line-ups are the least of it. What terrorists have done quite successfully - along with killing and maiming untold numbers - is scare us. Well, yes, terror is their business, no surprise. They want us to be uneasily vigilant. They want our social webs to tear. Divide-and-conquer is a very old strategy.
Fear is a very primitive emotion (meaning it goes way back in our genetic heritage), and it does strange things to an animal, human or not. It distorts reality. It creates divisions where bonds once existed. And it makes everyone and everything guilty until proven innocent. Your life may depend on these black-and-white criteria. But how much harm has been done because of them?
I hope someone in the social sciences eventually performs a study on the levels of xenophobia in a few sample cities, preferably before and after a significant terrorist event. Is the average citizen more suspicious of the Other because of the talk about screening and profiling and so on? Have we been permanently jolted out of a hard-earned sense of ethnic integration in some of our biggest cities?
I hope not. I cannot be the only one who would dread to go back even 20 years in terms of cultural acceptance of "differences." (The Dominant Social Paradigm being centered on the White Upper-middle-class straight male.) We still have a long way to go, but what wonderful strides forward we have made in so many lands. It would be horrible to regress at this point, to forget we are all part of the family of humanity.
Long live the rainbow community!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

New Year's Revolution

A very happy 2010 to all!
I came upon this over the holidays and thought it would be a good note on which to start the new year. Hard to follow in everyday life, perhaps, but aren't all resolutions a bit of a challenge?

I honor your gods.
I drink from your well.
I bring an unprotected heart to our meeting place.
I hold no cherished outcome.
I will not negotiate by withholding.
I am not subject to disappointment.

Some little things that go a long way: Pat the tethered dog shivering outside the store (if he lets you). Smile at a stranger. Read a poem and say 'thank you' to the poet (who may never know your gratitude). Share a meal. Renew your vows - with everyone who means something to you. And have a wonderful year of further adventures on this special planet.